Migration/immigration has become an ever-present global phenomenon. This is the case also in the Western world, with Western countries being primary destinations for large migratory movements.

Assessing migration/immigration belongs to the realm of ethics. In the context of this blog post, we want to ask ourselves how questions related to migration/immigration can be addressed from a biblical perspective. I would like to propose two general principles that may help to guide us in the deliberation of some of the important issues.

As a framework for these principles, we might want to first pause and recognize that migration/immigration:

  • has many facets that can hardly be covered by proposing simple one-directional analyses and simple one-size-fits-all practical measures;
  • is a contested issue among Christians, which might suggest that the best way forward is not to claim “one biblical answer,” but to seek dialogue in order to learn together more about the complexities of the issues involved and how to respond to them in ever better-informed ways.

Principle I: We must consider the Bible in all its breadth and complexity when referring to and investigating texts that may be relevant for issues of migration/immigration.

1. In many discussions and treatments of issues of migration/immigration, the focus is predominantly or exclusively on biblical passages that talk about compassion for the sojourner / resident alien (Hebrew ger) in the Hebrew Bible, or on Jesus’s love-command. While these texts are obviously important, I also think that — as in other questions — it would be helpful to avoid a reductionist approach and also look at all those other biblical texts that deal with issues of migration/immigration. For example, there exist biblical regulations about the exclusion of foreigners from Israel in certain circumstances (e.g., Deut 23:2-9), or the separation of Israel or the church from outsiders. Since we have been given the biblical canon as a whole, we certainly need to listen to the biblical canon as a whole. It will also be important to carefully consider what the implications of the love-command with regard to issues of migration/immigration are, pondering all the serious exegetical and hermeneutical questions that are related to this — before jumping to quick and insufficiently bolstered conclusions. The same is true for Old Testament texts referring to the sojourner.

2. While these texts are important, they must be understood in their literary and historical contexts. If we aspire to treat them in an exegetically responsible way, we cannot isolate them from their contexts and ignore the specific historical circumstances in which they are embedded.

3. Other biblical texts, such as those talking about the preservation of identity, the importance and function of borders, the distinction and relationship between Israel and other nations, or between various foreign nations, also need to be taken into consideration. The same applies for broader biblical views on fundamental principles, such as creational order, the distinctive layers of responsibility for others, justice, love and truth, or the distinction between the roles of individuals, congregations and states.

4. Because of the far-reaching historical differences between the situations which are reflected in the biblical texts on the one hand and the current circumstances on the other, there are no easy and quick one-to-one transfers from the biblical texts to current migration/immigration issues.

Principle II: We must consider, besides the Bible, all the available extra-biblical data that shed light on (im)migration issues both past and present.

Practitioners of biblical ethics should never ignore scientific knowledge that pertains to whatever topic they seek to address. This is also true for (im)migration ethics. In order to do this properly, eight aspects have to be considered:

1. It is important to be aware of the differences between various kinds of migration/immigration and various types of migrants/immigrants. There is, for example, the distinction between persons that fall into the category of refugees as defined by the Geneva Convention on the one hand and economic migrants on the other — even though it is clear that categories such as these, and distinctions based on such categories, must be open to nuancing, and will not easily apply to every specific case. Differences also exist in terms of the legal statuses of immigrants, their educational background, their fitness for the labor market in the country of destination, their cultural and religious backgrounds, etc.

2. It is important to not only focus on either a micro-level perspective (individual migrant/immigrant and his/her family), or a macro-level perspective (macro-economic systems; institutions; including state policy), but on both.

3. It is important to not only focus on the perspective of the migrant/immigrant, or the perspective of the receiving society, but on both.

4. It is important to gain a holistic perspective in which all the factors involved in and affected by migration/immigration are scrutinized: culture, religion, economy (including costs and benefits), human rights, particular laws (or the absence of specific laws) and the broader concept of the rule of law in general, politics (including questions of sovereignty and citizenship), demographics, ecology, psychological and physical health, education, security, cohesion, etc. This must be done with respect to all parties involved, including not only the individual migrant/immigrant and the receiving society, but also the situation in the sending society.

5. It is important to also focus on the situation in the sending countries not only in terms of how such societies are affected by emigration, but also in terms of an identification of the factors that lead to emigration in the first place.

6. It is important to analyze current (im)migration issues in a context that also includes a long-term perspective. Questions about future possible or probable consequences especially of mass-immigration, both with respect to the receiving and the sending societies, are important to consider.

7. It is important to take into consideration past historical experiences — the other side of the same coin mentioned in the previous point — when considering issues of migration/immigration. An analysis of earlier periods marked by large-scale (im)migration, particularly focusing on the causal factors and the long-term results of such movements, is an important contribution to understanding and assessing current migration/immigration issues. One has to ask what the historical parallels are that can help to understand the present situation better and inform policies that can tackle it in ways that may be seen as helpful by a majority of people in all societies involved.

8. It is important to explore alternative ways of helping people in need besides migration, and to carefully investigate questions about the best destination for people for whom migration is the best or only alternative.

An additional point: Personal calling vs. general assessment of biblical ethics.

  • There is a difference between venturing to build a solid biblical ethical assessment of migration issues and the realm of following a personal calling in one’s life with God.
  • On the latter level, it may well be that someone feels called to serve immigrants in a special way, either materially or spiritually (or both). Such a personal calling is not on the same level as the construction of generally valid biblical ethics of migration, and it cannot replace it in the broader picture of what the Church (or the discipline of Theology) needs to do. Personal callings can also not unilaterally determine in and of themselves broader state politics, because the function of the state is different from the special role of individuals as private citizens.
  • A personal calling to serve immigrants can be compared to another person’s calling to focus on serving the elderly, or on protecting the lives of unborn children, etc. As far as I can see, there is no reason why we should play out one personal calling against another; rather, in their complementarity they will reflect the richness and diversity of the body of Christ.
  • Persons who feel called to serve immigrants in particular ways will then, naturally, also accept that other Christians may have other callings related to the same broader issue of migration/immigration, like investing resources to help people in need to make migration unnecessary in the first place, or supporting the fight against people-smugglers, or protecting the borders to prevent damage to their communities by criminal gangs when applicable (which, of course, does not mean that immigrants as such are criminals!), or even educating the broader public about worldviews and ideologies that are imported by some specific groups of migrants, not least in cases in which such worldviews may not be conducive to the common good.
  • All these different callings relate to different aspects of the reality of current (im)migration issues, and none of these aspects should be ignored, even if open discussions about their respective weight and the best ways to handle them are both inevitable and necessary.

For a comprehensive new treatment of questions related to the interface of Bible and migration/immigration, including an analysis of the differences between the biblical migration scenarios and the current situation, as well as insights from the disciplines of psychology, demography, economics and security studies, read Markus Zehnder’s new book, The Bible and Immigration: A Critical and Empirical Reassessment, published by Wipf & Stock this year.